Summary of McConnell v. State, 121 Nev. Adv. Op. 5

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Case Summary

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Case Synopsis

Robert McConnell was charged with the murder of Brian Pierce. McConnell shot and killed Pierce, who was living with McConnell’s ex-girlfriend, after breaking into the couples’ apartment. McConnell pled guilty to first-degree murder and admitted during his testimony that the murder was premeditated. He then presented a case for mitigation at his penalty hearing in an effort to avoid the death penalty. However, the jury found the requisite aggravating circumstances were present and determined that any mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances. Accordingly, McConnell was sentenced to death. He appealed the sentence, challenging the propriety of his sentence on several grounds. On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment of conviction and sentence of death.2 Although McConnell was not convicted on the basis of felony murder, in its opinion the court considered the question of whether a felony can be used both as an element of a conviction for felony murder and as an aggravating circumstance for capital murder status. The court ultimately held that “a felony may not be used both to establish first-degree murder and to aggravate the murder to capital status.”3 The court based its decision on the following rationale: (1) prohibitions of cruel and unusual punishment in both the United States and Nevada Constitutions mandate that a capital sentencing scheme must genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty. In Lowenfield4, the United States Supreme Court concluded that this narrowing function can be provided either by a narrowing of the definition of capital offenses by the state legislature, or where the legislature defines capital offenses broadly, by requiring the jury to find aggravating circumstances at the penalty phase. (2) Because the Nevada legislature defines capital felony murder broadly, its capital sentencing scheme must narrow death eligibility at the penalty phase by the jury’s finding of aggravating circumstances. (3) Although they “can theoretically eliminate death eligibility in a few cases of felony murder,” Nevada’s felony aggravators (NRS 200.033(4) & NRS 200.033(13)) do not adequately narrow death penalty eligibility in the case of felony murder.5 (4) Thus it is “impermissible under the United States and Nevada Constitutions to base an aggravating circumstance in a capital prosecution on the felony upon which a felony murder is predicated.”6 The State filed a motion for rehearing, challenging this ruling on the basis that, in reaching its decision, the court improperly decided the issue when the State did not brief the issue, and that the court misconstrued and misapplied several precedent cases including Lowenfield. The Clark County District Attorney filed amicus brief in support of the State’s position.

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